The Politics of Exclusion*

By Nicola Nasser

“If it is globalisation, it has to be for everyone,” said Nobel laureate in economics Amartya Kumar Sen during an interview on 21 November. In the Arab world a growing wave of labour strikes and economic protests, stretching from Mauritania to Yemen, has underlined that globalisation is restricted to a small Arab elite buffered from the vast and growing armies of poor by an urban middle class that is shrinking as a result of the economic deregulation dictated by the globalisation theorists of the IMF and World Bank. Yet to the Arab elite that benefits from the policies of these international monetary organisations “words like globalisation and free trade are all the fashion now,” as Reem Al-Faisal said in the Saudi Arabian-based Arab News of 3 December. That particular edition coincided with the closing session of the Fikr 6 conference in Manama dedicated to “Arab strategies for the global era”. Another in the series of these elitist forums opened in Ras Al-Kheima in the UAE last Thursday, dedicated this time to “National industries and the challenges of globalisation” and with the avowed aim of exploring the potential of the vast Arab consumer market.

The founder and president of the Arab Fikr (Thought) Institute is the emir of Mecca, Khaled Al-Faisal. In his opening address to Fikr 6 he warned that the Arabs were in a race against time and must catch up with the globalisation train or else perish through ignorance of science and technology. With the support of the Arab ruling establishment, Al-Faisal has spearheaded a six-year long campaign to connect two elites — the Arab intelligentsia and Arab businessmen — whose relationship so far has been characterised, according to the senior executive manager of Aramco in Saudi Arabia, Abdullah Bin Saleh Bin Jumaa, by “the barrier of tradition and perpetual draught”. In its recent conference the Arab Fikr Institute attempted to add a third sector — Arab NGOs — to the parties the conference referred to as “partners in revival”. From 1-3 December, in Manama, representatives of these “partners” sat together with their foreign counterparts to discuss Arab strategies for the global era in such fields as energy, investment, the media, technology and social responsibility.

The Emir Faisal is also a poet, and it is the poet in him, perhaps, that leads to the hope that he can ground his initiative on “apolitical” foundations and so avoid the dismal failure of similar initiatives that have been wrecked on the rocks of rivalry between Arab regimes and conflicting ideologies. He also wanted the initiative to assume a “non-governmental” basis in the hope that the private sector can succeed where government has failed. Finally, he sought to target Arab youth, targets of the “Workshop on creativity and the new skills needed by the leaders of the future” that took place on the first day of Fikr 6.

The value of an initiative that seeks to mobilise private sector business leaders and capital behind the promotion of new Arab thought and talent in all fields should not be underestimated. Therein resides the potential for transforming an idea into a concrete force that can contribute to stemming the brain drain, increasing investment and freeing Arab NGOs from dependency on foreign funding and the political strings attached.

Yet while sponsorship from the ruling establishment in Saudi Arabia and the ruling family in Bahrain gives much needed support to this ambitious initiative, it casts a shadow of doubt over its “apolitical” character and raises the suspicion that it is intended to promote the policies and positions of the so-called Arab moderates allied to the US. Reinforcing this impression was the uniform nature of the media that attended the conference as participants or sponsors. The BBC, CNBC (Al-Arabiya), MBC and Al-Hayat were official media sponsors, while no representatives of alternative or opposition media were on hand to dispel this impression and lend greater credibility to the initiative.

No Arab strategy for the global era can crystallise into a promising course of collective Arab action if it reflects and serves a single stripe of Arab thought, certainly not when those who initiated, sponsored and took part in the initiative are bound by alliances, friendship and economic and cultural biases to the US, which leads the globalisation process and politically or militarily dominates the Arab world in a manner that not only hampers this region’s globalisation but also its unity, an indispensable condition for a healthy transition into the global era.

DIVORCED FROM REALITY: With all due respect to the importance of the idea behind the conference, the nobility of its aspiration, the earnestness of its sponsors and participants and the few beacons it lit by bestowing honorary awards for literary, scientific and artistic innovation, one of the conference’s most salient traits was its detachment from reality. It is jarring to hear conference members discuss a rosy future in “globalese” while outside the conference chamber is a world steeped in regionalism, provincialism and separatism, dominated by despots determined to perpetuate the status quo.

Perhaps this is what dimmed the optimism that Aramco’s representative, Abdullah Bin Saleh Bin Jumaa, attempted to impart on the second day of the conference. “It is possible that this century will see a major rise in Arab civilisation, restoring us, after long last, to the vanguard of nations,” he said, adding that the Arab world can derive hope from “such ancient nations as India and China, which have emerged to the fore in the theatre of events and, within less than 20 years, have come to lead global growth by means of planning that focuses on the economic dimension, which is the most important in the global era.”

Unfortunately, the speaker overlooked a fundamental political fact, which is that those two pioneering nations are united, that they are not subjected to foreign occupation or hegemony that diminishes their national sovereignty, and that the will of their peoples is expressed through solidly established political orders. The case could hardly be more different in the Arab “worlds” where disparate regimes are bound solely by a common language. More important, the two countries have adopted a totally different policy towards acclimatising to globalisation: they grapple with it by the horns as opposed to surrendering to it. It suffices to recall their struggle with the US over their membership in the WTO to appreciate their strategic vision for the global era.

It is clear that the strategic vision espoused by China and India and shared by countries from Latin America to Russia contrasts sharply with that outlined in Fikr 6 by the Bahraini crown prince and commander of the Bahraini defence forces Sheikh Salman Bin Hamad Al Khalifa. Globalisation, he said, should not be regarded as a new war that has to be halted “because we cannot operate successfully outside that [globalised] order in this day and age”. Yet many do regard globalisation as the economic and cultural front of a Western war that targets political sovereignty and national culture. Indeed, Sheikh Salman’s appeal, on the second day of the conference, to keep an open mind to globalisation and its encouragement of innovation may have unwittingly reminded his audiences of the ongoing physical annihilation of thousands of Iraqi scientists and innovators who had almost lifted their nation to the threshold of the revival to which His Highness and other founders and sponsors of the Arab Fikr Institute aspire. Now this process must start from scratch again.

The aspirations of the Meccan poet-prince appear grounded on a sensible and realistic hope, but this realism risks erring into romantic idealism if it is not accompanied by the practical awareness that it will never take flight in an area writhing from the wounds of foreign occupation, especially in Palestine and Iraq. How can we discuss the future of the Arab economy, petroleum and alternative energy resources, human development, technological advancement, a “green” environment, the Arab “global citizen” and other such vital issues explored by Fikr 6 as though occupation did not exist? How can we look forward to open horizons and open borders in the worlds of thought and science without first considering how to globalise the borders between the Arabs themselves, who are being choked by an array of political and military, national and foreign boundaries and indelible lines.

The hotel in which the Fikr 6 took place is located a stone’s throw from the Jafir military base which is, in turn, a short distance from Qatar, where US command has overseen military operations in Iraq since the invasion in 2003. Yet the conference made no reference to US military presence in the Gulf and to the fact that these bases on Arab territory are now turning their sights against Iran.

The conference dedicated no small amount of time to explaining the economic and environmental advantages of investing in “green buildings”. In addition, the Saudi Arabian entrepreneur Mohamed Al-Eissa, issued an appeal for the promulgation of laws to promote “green construction” and for awareness-raising programmes on green technologies “because there is a resistance to these new technologies which are not well understood”. One imagines that these discussions would have raised the eyebrows of the millions of inhabitants of the poverty belts that surround Arab capitals, and stirred anger and resentment among thousands of Arab farmers in Iraq and Palestine, had they had the opportunity to listen in. While the American version of globalisation is overseeing the uprooting of millions of palm and olive trees, some participants at Fikr 6 were moved by the spirit of economic globalisation to call for a programme to revive the host country’s famous “million palms”.

At least some of the participants must have reacted with incredulity to the news of plans to construct the world’s first environmentally safe city. Hundreds of millions of dollars will be poured into Masdar, as the model city is to be called, while Umm Al-Nasr in northern Gaza is still contending with the aftermath of the rupture in its sewage system which then flooded of the devastated homes that have not yet been bulldozed by the Israeli military machine. Two children, an old man and three women drowned in the deluge, while the UN warned that a similar but even worse environmental disaster was impending if the international community did not hasten to forestall the detonation of a larger sewerage complex in Gaza.

To equip the Arab public with the means to become successful “global citizens” is a major undertaking, and it will remain out of reach until we create the political and social conditions conducive to developing the necessary skills and attitudes. The redemption of the individual Arab as a global citizen resides, first and foremost, in equipping his society to survive in the global era and in promoting human development within that context.

Unless fundamental problems are addressed the utopian environmentally clean city of Masdar will be permanently threatened by the time bomb of Umm Al-Nasr and the initiative undertaken by private sector capital and the natural flow of investment will remain stymied by the military fortifications constructed by foreign occupying powers and by the political/security walls being constructed, for example, in the Western Sahara, along the border between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, between the various quarters of Baghdad, and by the separating wall and in Palestine intended to create isolated cantons.

The lofty vision propounded in Manama will be destined to remain no more than an expression of good intentions until it is grounded upon an edifice of national sovereignty, unhampered by direct foreign occupation or the chains of imperial hegemony, and is accompanied by a minimal level of Arab political solidarity and strategic coordination.

It thus does not stand to reason to search for an Arab strategy for the global era — the era of open minds and open borders — as long as closed borders and insularism remain the predominant trait of the relationship between Arab governments and their people. Nor does it make sense to eliminate the political from Arab thought as a prerequisite for acceptance in the quest for such a strategy given the most formidable obstacles to the aspirations expressed in Manama are quintessentially political.

One of the conference participants was the founder of the successful Orascom communications company, the multi- millionaire Egyptian businessman Naguib Sawiris. It was his belief that the Arabs’ acquisition and use of the mobile telephone and the Internet have already transformed them into global citizens. His judgement, however, seems hasty, especially as pertains to the Palestinian situation.

Globalisation has, indeed, swept away many political barriers across the world, leaving governments helpless before trans-national companies that encroach on national sovereignty and threaten it rather more than transcontinental missiles. Globalisation remains incapable, however, of removing the hundreds of military barriers erected by the Israeli occupation in order to obstruct the freedom of movement of Palestinian people and goods. To say that the Palestinians under occupation enjoy global citizenship because they can use the mobile phone and the Internet is, at best, an unwittingly provocative joke. The same applies to such claims being made for people living under American occupation in Iraq.

It is taken for granted the world over that globalisation is synonymous with Americanisation. Perhaps the people who convened in Manama should have first examined this commonly held impression or attempted to redefine the term before proceeding to any discussion of an Arab strategy for the global era. But it is doubtful that this would have even occurred to them in view of the capitalist, technocratic and “apolitical” framework to which the organisers of and participants in Fikr 6 have committed themselves. Contrary to its intent, this very framework entrenches the gulf between the proceedings in Manama and the surrounding political environment, a gulf that, if it remains unbridged, will doom their efforts to remain an elitist initiative divorced from reality and unable to alter that reality in the manner to which they aspire.

It is impossible to escape the fact that the call to acclimatise to globalisation is, in fact, a call to accept and adjust to Americanisation. That the Palestinians have fallen in line with this approach to the extent of making their national fate conditional upon its success has brought not even a glimmer of hope that the borders and barriers that are strangling the life out of them will end. As for the attempt to force Iraq to heel with globalisation American-style, its lethal consequences are there for all to see.

* Al-Ahram Weekly, 20 – 26 December 2007, Issue No. 876.

http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2007/876/op8.htm

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